Q. You’ve written a candid and deeply moving memoir about your journey to heal from the tragic loss of your twin brother, Michael Rockefeller, who was never recovered after his boat capsized off the coast of New Guinea in November 1961 when he was just 23 years old. What inspired you to write about this painful experience in your life?
A. My bereavement group of twinless twins from the 9-11 World Trade Center disaster inspired me to write my memoir. The twins wanted me to bring awareness to and understanding of the treatment issues and long-term consequences of breaking the bond of twinship. I felt I could meet that goal by sharing my personal story and by putting it in perspective—not only to twin loss—but also to the shared issues of deep personal loss. I felt particularly close to this group. We not only shared a twin identity, but our loss was made more isolating and painful by being embedded in a highly publicized event. Physical closure became impossible for most of us, as the remains of our twins were never found.
Q. As a psychotherapist who received a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University, you have dedicated the past fourteen years to counseling twinless twins, including those who lost their twins in the World Trade Center tragedy. How is the grieving process different when it involves the loss of a twin?
A. The two main differences between twin loss and other human loss are the paired issues of identity and the twin bond. From the moment of conception, twins develop in relationship. From fourteen weeks of age, both identical and fraternal twins purposely interact with each other in the womb. Their sense of self grows in connection. The “I” is seen and felt within the frame of a “we.” This seminal bond is tempered by whether the twins are fraternal or identical and by the environment they are born into. Breaking that original bond through the death of one twin can seriously affect the remaining twin’s sense of who they are and how they relate to the world. The resulting bereavement process can be longer and more complicated – often requiring the formation of a new, individual identity.
Q. There are many aspects of the 9-11 experience that people are not aware of. How did your experience inter-relate with the victims of the tragedy of 9-11?
A. I had read a touching and heartbreaking interview in the New York Times of a young man whose identical twin brother died in the collapse of the first Trade Tower. Since I became a therapist, I had wanted to work with bereaved twins. None of my colleagues knew any. A phone call to the writer of the article put me in touch with the wife of the surviving twin, who was looking for a therapist who could understand the issues affecting her traumatized husband. If felt like Providence had intervened. Over the next months, I counseled him and other surviving twins from 9-11 and formed a twin bereavement group, which lasted for two years. The tragedy of 9-11 and my own twin loss created an opportunity for me to work with and study twin bereavement and to form a connection to an international network of twinless twins.
Q. How was the grieving process made more difficult for you as a Rockefeller?
A. With the name and label of “Rockefeller,” I found it difficult, as a young person, to meet and connect with another human being on the ground of our common humanity. For others, the loss of my twinship was colored and obscured by a public story, making a personal connection around Michael’s disappearance all but impossible. I needed time to discover myself as an individual, in my own right, before I could bridge the gap created by the notoriety of my family and find my way to people who could personally relate to the reality of my personal loss and help me to heal.
Q. Why do you think there is still to this day a lack of support for the healing process of bereavement?
A. Our culture isn’t comfortable with death. Most of us do not see it as a part of the larger context of life. We glorify youth and fear aging. We shy away from thinking about or talking about our own deaths and keep the pain of our loved one’s death to ourselves. We are a nation of doers. Whenever loss hits us, we expect ourselves and others to get up and get on with our lives. An effective bereavement entails taking important time to bear witness to our loss and to the relationship we had with our departed loved one. For more healing to happen from personal loss, we need to change our fearful attitudes towards death, make more room in our economic and social structures for grieving and help to create the relationships that support our own natural imperative to heal.
Q. You speak about a “natural healing imperative.” Can you explain how that works?
A. I sincerely believe we possess, as human beings, an inner psychological healing process or “natural healing imperative” that self activates in the psyche, just as the healing process does in the body when we are injured. This psychological process helps to integrate the trauma experience, which shocks and destabilizes the psyche and helps the bereaved to slowly regain his or her emotional grounding and sense of connection to life. In my memoir, I show how this natural inner force worked through my life and made it possible to heal. From the numbness that protected me when I first met the trauma, to the psychological crisis that broke through my resistance and denial, and forced me to face my loss and Michael’s death, the “natural healing imperative” positioned and pushed me when I was ready, to open to the seminal loss I had suffered. In partnership with this process, I experienced the resulting grief, and moved to a rebirth of my life along with a discovery of a new relationship to Michael, which surfaced after I had let go the one that no longer exists.
Q. What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A. In telling my story, I hope to help to break the isolation that surrounds and pervades the journey of deep personal loss. I want to open up the process of healing that is possible even in our culture, which promotes repressing grief in order to get on with life. By sharing the experience of my own twin bereavement, I want to connect with bereaved twins, to touch the place where twins are torn from their intrinsic sense of who they are and how they express themselves in their lives. I would like my readers to understand the challenges twins face in their healing journeys. Perhaps my book might offer encouragement and a guiding hand to people who need to further explore their own unique healing process and become a partner with the “natural healing imperative.” Finally, I would like my readers to take away the understanding that healing from major loss takes place in connection. In connecting to ourselves, our true feelings, to others and to the relationships in the natural world, we form community. We break the isolation and can take the necessary steps for our healing.